Young Children and Connectedness

The other day, my tween son and I were talking and laughing as we sorted through piles of nursery artwork I have stored in the basement. I noticed a drawing with red and blue lines and some adult handwriting in the corner stating that the lines represented my son and his older brother. While I had no idea what the image meant, it was clear that my son’s teacher or caregiver had taken time to ask about the drawing and listen to my son’s explanation. 

Connecting with others is a crucial component of spiritual awareness.  Young children have traditionally been characterized as egocentric: focused primarily on their own needs and wants.  But current research suggests that infants and toddlers are better understood as allocentric: intensely aware of the people around them. Infants follow their primary caregiver with their eyes and smile in response to seeing their parent’s face during a game of peek-a-boo.  Toddlers play side by side and joyfully show off a new treasure, studying their playmate’s reaction for better understanding. Through encounters with others, they begin to understand their interconnectedness with the world and find wonder and joy, as well as negotiate disappointment and grief, in their relationships. 

A caregiver or nursery teacher can bolster these relational meaning-making experiences. Researchers have observed that young children not only have interconnected experiences, they also want to communicate those experiences to others but do not have the verbal skills to explain their interactions. An adult can watch closely, recognize that the child is trying to tell a story about their relationships, and encourage the child’s meaning-making.

Here are some suggestions for how caregivers can facilitate relational meaning-making, adapted from the work of early childhood educator Mary Jane Maguire-Fong:

  • Focus on the child’s behavior and actions. Listen to the story the child is trying to tell you through movements, gestures, drawings, and other actions. 
  • Be encouraging. Offer words that recognize and support the non-verbal or semi-verbal story the child is trying to sort through.
  • Treat these interactions as sacred spaces. Embrace your role as someone who can help children interpret and learn from their relationships. 

So how might this look in practice? Consider these examples:

Gabriella (teacher) notices Ben (toddler) with paper and crayons and asks what he is drawing.  Ben responds by saying “J”, which Gabriella understands to be Ben’s older brother, Josh.  She acknowledges the drawing and asks questions about Ben’s relationship with Josh: “What are you and Josh doing in the picture?” “Do you like playing with Josh?” She also makes a point to talk with Ben’s father when he arrives to pick up his son at noon.  Ben’s dad explains that Josh just started Kindergarten and Ben misses having him around in the afternoons. With this information in mind, Gabriella encourages Ben over the coming days, giving him words for his feelings of sadness and loss as he makes sense of his changing relationship with Josh through his drawings.  

Brianna (nursery worker) notices that Hannah often crawls after Aaliyah, She laughs and touches Aaliyah when she catches her. Brianna recognizes this as a story of young friendship. She wants to encourage the connection between the two infants, so she shows them how to play tag by touching Hannah on the leg and then crawling a few feet away and laughing.  When Hannah crawls after her she expresses joy and delight by laughing and smiling. She says, “My friend Hannah is playing with me!” She then encourages Aaliyah to tag Hannah.  When Aaliyah does, Brianna says, “Aaliyah is playing with her friend Hannah!” By doing this, Brianna helps Aaliyah and Hannah discover the joy of friendship.

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